April 28, 2013

Exploring Cache Creek Nature Area's Blue Ridge Trail

Poised like a massive wave forever about to break, a mighty ridge looms on the west rim of the Sacramento Valley. Yet despite its high visibility to drivers speeding past Fairfield on Interstate 80, this lofty geologic neighbor – Blue Ridge – retains an air of mystery. But it's a mystery that can be probed.

Poised like a massive wave forever about to break, a mighty ridge looms on the west rim of the Sacramento Valley. Yet despite its high visibility to drivers speeding past Fairfield on Interstate 80, this lofty geologic neighbor – Blue Ridge – retains an air of mystery. But it's a mystery that can be probed.

While it soars up to more than 3,000 feet and extends about 29 miles in length, Blue Ridge only looks like a barricade. Actually, the mountain forms a gateway to a wildlife haven and outdoor sport mecca dubbed the Cache Creek Natural Area.

Sprawling across 75,000 acres, this rumpled landscape over the past 20 years has increasingly provided trails for hikers, birders and wildflower buffs, routes for equestrians and mountain bikers, opportunities for hunters and distinctive campgrounds. The preserve forms a migratory destination for dozens of bald eagles each fall and a home for sizable herds of tule elk and blacktail deer year-round.

"You've now got a huge block of public open space located between several large metropolitan areas," said Pardee Bardwell. "That's why it's such an excellent place for both wildlife and human recreation."

Bardwell manages the area for the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that – in partnership with concerned citizens and other federal agencies as well as state and county ones – assembled the preserve over the four decades since it began to be studied as a potential wilderness.

You can enjoy a wonderful introduction to this area by hiking the Blue Ridge Trail from its north trailhead. At Yolo County's Cache Creek Regional Park Lower Site, you can begin your ascent. This is no mere figure of speech; the Blue Ridge Trail rises more than 2,000 feet over the course of three miles.

En route, it brings you up a narrow draw, past a shady oak woodland and abundant wildflowers (in spring), before bursting out into the open on a shoulder of the ridge. At that point, the path starts to reward you with ever-more-spectacular views of the Capay and Sacramento valleys, Sutter Buttes and, on clear days, the Sierra to the east. Out to the west, those grand waves of inner Coast Range ridges stand revealed. After a hike of four miles, you'll attain the 2,868-foot summit of Fiske Peak.

It was precisely this hike that served as initial inspiration to Andrew Fulks, a co-founder and current president of Tuleyome, a citizens group that advocates for natural resource conservation and recreation enhancement throughout the region. Moving to Davis in 1990, Fulks pondered why nothing like the Mid-Peninsula Open Space District had been launched to protect the inner Coast Range. Suddenly he realized he'd just given himself that job.

Going up on Blue Ridge in 1995, Fulks said, opened his eyes to the possibilities:

"The sheer drama of the topography is what drew me to it, those steep mountain slopes, geological strata that have been folded and stood on end, gorgeous rock outcrops. However, equally jaw-dropping is all the remarkable biological diversity of plants and animals that make this whole area their home."

Going up this relentlessly rising trail recently, I found it useful to keep in mind the willpower and drive of such discoverers as Lewis and Clark, Jedediah Smith and The Little Engine That Could. After puffing my way up to the summit, I found myself with a balcony view of the sprawling Coast Range landscape. I also won an impressive aerobic workout and returned to the trailhead with a camera fairly bursting with wildflower photos.

Fulks' hikes triggered an enduring drive to help organize public support for the region. The group he founded in 2002 took its name from the language of Lake Miwok tribal people who inhabited the region. Tuleyome ("too-lee-OH-me") means "deep-home-place."

Now with a membership of 1,500, and lists of contacts many times longer, this group enjoys a seat at stake-holder planning sessions with the BLM. It also lobbies for public access; purchases and holds crucial real estate tracts until they can be incorporated in the preserve; runs a youth outdoor training and leadership program; and builds and maintains many sections of trail.

Their newest completed path starts just north of Lake Berryessa and ascends over seven miles to 3,057-foot Berryessa Peak, the summit of Blue Ridge. At this time, no link has been established along the ridge between this and the northern trailhead. And the old, traditional southern trailhead is inaccessible, due to the closure of the low-water bridge on the Rayhouse Road and an ensuing lack of road maintenance. Restoring and improving such access points are projects highlighted on Tuleyome's agenda.

But many other public facilities and trailheads into the Cache Creek Natural Area are open and growing in popularity, both along Highway 16 and going westward on Highway 20 after the junction of the two roads. Bardwell says he has seen visitation to these sites approximately double since 2003.

Moving northwest from the Lower Site, one mile onward is the Cache Creek Regional Park's campground, or Middle Site. It goes for $25 per night; get reservations at (530) 406-4880. A mile past that is the Upper Site, another day-use area.

Two miles past that is High Bridge, a free primitive campground (its sole facility is a pit privy) that also is a trailhead for Cache Creek Ridge.

Four miles beyond that is Cowboy Camp, a BLM facility designed for equestrian use. The Clearlake Horsemen and Backcountry Horsemen of California are two other citizen stakeholders who have become involved.

Bardwell says the junction of highways 16 and 20 is the point where 21 tule elk were reintroduced to the wild in 1922; now the roaming herds number as many as 180 individuals or more. Habitat for them was acquired and enhanced with the help of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Three miles west of this junction is the Lynch Canyon trailhead; four miles west is found the Judge Davis trailhead; the North Fork Cache Creek Bridge and river access (private boaters only) is 13 miles west; and 15 miles west is a trailhead for the Redbud path – a seven-mile route to the Wilson Valley. It's the most popular hike in the Cache Creek Natural Area by far, probably because it's one of the least strenuous, and also affords some of the best opportunities to spot eagles or elk.

Tuleyome is working toward designation of a 321,000-acre expanse wrapped around the existing Cache Creek Natural Area, to be called the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Conservation Area. This 60-mile-long stretch of inner Coast Range is the subject of a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from St. Helena, and matched by a Senate measure sponsored by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Under its provisions, this region would be unified under a management plan emphasizing values such as natural diversity, wildlife corridors, and human recreation opportunity.

Back in 2006, Thompson sponsored the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act, which named nearly half of the existing Cache Creek Natural Area as the Cache Creek Wilderness, and established the nearby Cedar Roughs Wilderness. A promising signal of bipartisan support is that it was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Impressive as Blue Ridge and the Cache Creek Natural Area may be now, its fans believe the preserve can be the seed for a grander vision. As the old song goes, this could be the start of something big.

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